Toward Freedom: Democratic Socialist Theory and Practice — part I

Democratic socialists believe that the individuality of each human being can only be developed in a society embodying the values of liberty, equality, and solidarity. These beliefs do not entail a crude conception of equality that conceives of human beings as equal in all respects. Rather, if human beings are to develop their distinct capacities they must be accorded equal respect and opportunities denied them by the inequalities of capitalist society, in which the life opportunities of a child born in the inner city are starkly less than that of a child born in an affluent suburb. A democratic community committed to the equal moral worth of each citizen will socially provide the cultural and economic necessities ? food, housing, quality education, healthcare, childcare ? for the development of human individuality.

Achieving this diversity and opportunity necessitates a fundamental restructuring of our socioeconomic order. While the freedoms that exist under democratic capitalism are gains of popular struggle to be cherished, democratic socialists argue that the values of liberal democracy can only be fulfilled when the economy as well as the government is democratically controlled.

We cannot accept capitalism?s conception of economic relations as ?free and private,? because contracts are not made among economic equals and because they give rise to social structures which undemocratically confer power upon some over others. Such relationships are undemocratic in that the citizens involved have not freely deliberated upon the structure of those institutions and how social roles should be distributed within them (e.g., the relationship between capital and labor in the workplace or men and women in child rearing). We do not imagine that all institutional relations would wither away under socialism, but we do believe that the basic contours of society must be democratically constructed by the free deliberation of its members.

The democratic socialist vision does not rest upon one sole tradition; it draws upon Marxism, religious and ethical socialism, feminism, and other theories that critique human domination. Nor does it contend that any laws of history preordain the achievement of socialism. The choice for socialism is both moral and political, and the fullness of its vision will never be permanently secured.

Marx’s Analysis of Capitalism: Social Production Versus Private Control

Karl Marx?whose work is particularly relevant in our era of ?globalization??recognized that capitalism represented an increase in human freedom and productive power. Under feudalism, political and economic life had been merged. Born a serf, one remained a serf, subject to the political and economic domination of one?s lord. Capitalism freed the economic sphere from the domination of the political. Under capitalism, the worker and capitalist contracted with one another free of the burdens of traditional religious or status relations.

Though the rise of capitalist economic relations in Europe predates political democracy by over two centuries, the rhetoric of freedom of contract and legal equality that arose during capitalism?s infancy in the 17th century contributed to the growth of movements for political democracy. In a capitalist democracy, one?s economic status, in theory, does not affect one?s political and legal status. All members of society are to be judged equally before the law and have the equal right to participate politically (one person, one vote). But Marx illustrated that the inequalities in ?civil society? (or economic life) undercut the promise of political equality. In the political ?free market? for votes, capital has more influence than labor, and this structural inequality erodes the promise of political democracy. But Marx argued against authoritarian socialists who dismissed political democracy as merely “bourgeois,? as it is the existence of political democracy that enables the working class to mobilize its numbers against concentrated economic power.

In retrospect, however, Marx did not make clear his commitment to political democracy. Marx often implied that under advanced socialism?communism?control of production by the ?free association of producers? would end the need for politics. But even a society characterized by worker self-management of production and distribution would need political pluralism; there is no reason to think that there is one exact ?right? answer as to how socialism should be constructed, or that there is no politics apart from economic issues. Democratic debates over policy are, therefore, inevitable.

Marx did not only argue that capitalism undermined democracy. He argued against the very essence of it as an economic system. In his analysis, capitalism was an exploitative mode of production in which the capitalist class extracted ?surplus value? from the working class. For the first time in human history, labor power itself was sold as a free commodity on the market. No longer were people slaves or serfs to their masters. Workers were free to sell their labor power to whatever capitalist chose to employ them. But the asymmetry of power in this alleged ?free exchange? is that while the capitalist class owns the means of production, the working class only has their labor power to sell. This asymmetry means that while capitalists pay labor a ?living wage,? the value of this wage (the value of labor power) is always less than the value of the commodities produced by the workers? labor?if capital could not make a profit it would not employ labor. Workers? needs under capitalism are always subordinate to the bottom line.

Marx explained that capitalism required a high level of organization and direction, which the profit motive alone could not provide. Production was becoming a more ?social? enterprise, touching all of society?s diverse interests. Yet these social forces of production are still controlled by private capitalists, and now also by top-level corporate managers who share an interest in long-run profitability.

Socialists therefore argue that private corporate property is not only wrong, but also nonsensical. Wealth is a social creation and should be controlled by society as a whole. Of course, socialists must take seriously objections that there would be a need for expertise (say, for surgeons and engineers) and job specialization under socialism. The division of labor might well be eroded by the rotation of menial tasks, frequent sabbaticals, job retraining, shortening the workweek, and increasing the creativity of ?leisure? activity. But however we organize the division of labor?the structure of careers and life opportunities?it should be decided democratically and not by the accident of chance or of opportunities conferred or denied by one?s class position.

Class Structure and Political Agency: The Imperative of a Coalition Strategy

Marx did not believe that workers? revolution would occur because of socialism?s moral desirability or the wisdom of socialists. Rather, he posited that the increasingly interdependent nature of capitalist production would come into conflict with the private ownership and control of economic resources. For Marx, only the working class had a common interest in revolution and the structural power within the mode of production to carry it out. But it would take political organization for the working class to fulfill its potential as the social agent of revolution.

It turned out that Marx was overly optimistic about the development of class-consciousness and revolutionary activity on the part of the working class. Though Marx recognized that the working class was divided by functional tasks, ethnicity, and race, he believed that trade union struggle and political activity would engender a universal identity on the part of the working class committed to socialism. But the paradox of mature capitalism is its coexistence with universal suffrage. In no country has there yet been mobilized a conscious majority for socialism. This is not to deny the significant popular support for social democratic and labor parties that favor a mixed economy and greater socioeconomic equality. But even in Sweden there has yet to develop a conscious electoral majority for a cooperatively-run economy.

Why is it that in the 20th century there never emerged a conscious majority for socialism under liberal democracy? It is partially due to socialism?s identification with authoritarian Communism. It may also be because prosperity after World War II enabled capitalist welfare states to satisfy the material needs of most of their populations. What?s more, the ?capital strike? by business, which has confronted ambitious Socialist governments such as the Allende regime in Chile and the Mitterrand regime in France, makes clear the risks governments take when they try to limit the rights of capital.

Marxists have often underestimated the functional differentiation among working people and the growth of a ?middle strata? made up of those who are neither professionals nor blue-collar manual laborers. Today the number of working people who exercise some control over their labor and over others but who are not top-level managers is large (e.g., legal, financial, and medical professions). Socialists must also address the changing nature of capitalist production, which has led to a proliferation of low-skilled workers in the clerical and service sectors. These workers have difficulty organizing into unions because of the decentralized nature of their workplaces. The trade union movement is only beginning to adjust to an increasingly female and minority workforce, with different needs than male blue-collar workers. Organizing this ?new working class? is critical to the future of socialism.

One way of appealing both to the ?middle strata? and the working class is to stress democratic control over consumption and social provision, in addition to Marxism?s traditional focus on democratic control over production. In the United States today, large sectors of the middle class cannot afford decent healthcare, housing, education, and childcare. The challenge for the left is to unite these sectors with the working class and poor in favor of universal, progressively financed, public provision. Providing these goods for the middle class through tax credits and private insurance will only insure the further impoverishment of social services for the bottom third of society. Thus, building a majority coalition between the middle strata and lower-income people becomes not only a moral imperative, but also a political necessity. The large number of workers in the helping professions and the public sector provides the structural basis for such a coalition, particularly if these sectors are increasingly unionized. But middle class opposition to an expanded public sector will decrease only if progressive taxation is restored and democracy and efficiency increasingly characterizes social welfare provision.

Some Marxists have also overestimated the centrality of work to identity. Community, ethnic, and regional identities have often competed with class loyalties. Racial divisions and the initial organization of immigrants into ethnic-based political machines rather than class-conscious parties have weakened class identity in the United States. Democratic socialists recognize the pre-capitalist origins of racism and sexism. While capitalism clearly structures these forms of oppression (for example, the use of racism and sexism to channel women and minorities into low-paying, service sector jobs), there is a relatively autonomous cultural and psychological dimension to these forms of domination. Socialist-feminists analyze how the sexual division of labor in child rearing produces different gendered attitudes towards nurturing and moral judgment. Socialist analyses of racism examine the psychological underpinnings of racism in cultural fears of ?the other? and anxieties about group identity and status.

Democratic socialists, influenced by the Black Liberation, Women?s Liberation, and Gay and Lesbian Liberation movements, also recognize that ?different? identities provide meaning for people. The orthodox Marxist desire to subsume all ethnic, racial, and cultural groups under the universal identity of ?the working class? threatens the particular communities that provide sustenance to individuals. A democratic socialist society would facilitate the autonomy and enrichment of various cultural and ethnic traditions. But some ?post-modern? theorists go too far in celebrating ?particularity.? While particular identities and the autonomy of movements against oppression are central to a free, pluralist society, so is the development of a sense of common citizenship. Vibrant political life and a strong welfare society must be grounded in a strong sense of communal membership. Citizenship should not be viewed as a ?homogenizing? category that reduces all to the pursuit of the same interests and needs. Rather, if human beings and the particular communities with which they identify are to be accorded equal respect they need to live in a society that guarantees that all members will be able to fulfill their unique potential.

Joseph Schwartz and Jason Schulman
Democratic Socialists of America

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